Sunday, May 31, 2009

Death Close-walking Beside Me

So, why a blog whose sole purpose is to reflect upon death? To paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer as it refers to the sacraments, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual conversation that I have been having more or less continually as long as I can remember. Why not make that inner dialogue public, explore it more fully, and plumb the depths of what lessons death is seeking to impart?

Is this a morbid obsession, as my blog name suggests? In some sense it is. Undeniably, I have a dark fascination with death. But there's more. For me, as I suspect for many of us, death's mystery is intimately engaging and has an allure that is all but irresistible. It may even be that death impacts how I live my life now. Maybe.

In a recent interview, president of Harvard University and historian Drew Gilpin Faust, in speaking of mid-nineteenth century Americans' acute consciousness of death, noted: 'They believed that you focused your life more, you made its good qualities sharper, by always keeping in mind the fact that it would have an end. And so it was the anticipation of its limits that made the existence of your life all the more valuable."

As a clergyman and now, as a hospice chaplain, I encounter death often. I confess that this long exposure to death has not necessarily made me any the wiser. But neither do I deny death. With Walt Whitman in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, I imagine death as a companion along the way:

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of 
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the
      hands of companions...

I cordially invite you to accompany me on this journey of exploration and discovery.

(Photo Credit: from James Smillie's Mount Auburn Illustrated in Finely Drawn Line Engravings)


Geoff said...

I'm loving it, Dave. Keep 'er coming when the mood strikes.


Geoff said...

For a great piece by Tim Kreider in the New York Times today see

Tim does a good job of describing what happens when you 'get it" about your life and death, how that state of mind can fade, but also how the gift of understanding is always present, always available "above the clouds" if you can find a way to access it and hold on.

I understand from reading "experts" in human growth that there are "states" and "stages"; that we grow in a sort of rising gyre, revisiting issues over and over but a little higher each time if we work on them as they come up. As we go up, we can achieve higher and higher states of being (more inclusive, more loving, more sensitive to life), which are permanent. We BECOME that stage. But we also have available to us the ability to VISIT higher stages, briefly, temporarily, at any time. We can say that Tim entered a temporary state of a higher stage where he fully understood the preciousness of his life.

The point is that typically stages are not given to us, but states are. We have to do the work to enter and remain at a stage, but that glimpse given to us in a state can fuel the motivation to do the necessary work. It's not inevitable that Tim will lose what he found forever. The "work", I think, is daily spiritual practice, and there are many such practices that help us attain the stage that Tim visited.

Something to consider.